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Mount Etna: Europe’s Highest Active Volcano

For food and wine lovers interested in travel, a trip to Sicily with Experi is a must. It’s the crossroads of the Mediterranean, once inhabited by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Normans, and boasts meals prepared from the freshest local ingredients, ancient ruins waiting to be explored, and a diverse landscape that produces distinctive wines.

A highlight of any journey to Sicily is a visit to Mount Etna, on the eastern coast of Sicily. Standing as the tallest volcano in Europe at about 3,329 meters, it dominates the landscape with its often snow-dusted peak visible from much of eastern Sicily. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, its frequent eruptions have shaped the fertile volcanic soils surrounding it, supporting extensive agriculture, including a long history of winemaking. We asked one of our local guides, Guglielmo Fiorista, a few questions about what makes this volcano so remarkable.

Mount Etna

Q: We know that Mount Etna is an active volcano, similar to Mauna Loa in Hawaii and Sakurajima in Japan. In what ways are they different?

An eruption can take on different characteristics based on numerous factors, including the chemical composition of the magma and the layers it encounters during its ascent into the reservoir. The eruptions are divided into explosive and effusive. In explosive eruptions, magma is fragmented into particles of various sizes which are expelled into the atmosphere with violence and cool to form pyroclasts (slag, ash, and pumice). In effusive eruptions, the magma emerged on the surface takes the name of lava and form flows that flow along the sides of the volcano.

Some volcanoes have mainly explosive activity, others effusive, but in the same eruption, explosive and effusive phases can occur (like Etna). Many eruptions take the name of the volcanoes on which they are peculiar: the activities can be (in order of intensity from the lowest to the highest), Hawaiian, Strombolian, Vulcan, Freato-magmatic, and Plinian.

Hawaiian Eruptions - Mauna Loa:

Not very explosive, they consist of very fluid lava flows. The lava fountains sometimes generated by eruptions can reach a kilometer in height.

Strombolian Eruptions:

They are named after Stromboli in the Aeolian Islands and consist of a succession of moderate explosions, separated by even long time intervals. These activities are characteristic of many volcanoes, including Etna.

Plinian Eruptions:

Sakurajima is constituted by the formation of eruptive columns ten kilometers high, composed of ashes, pumice, and gases. The term "Plinian" derives from Pliny the Younger who described the disastrous eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. During these eruptions, the eruptive column collapses on itself due to too much weight, falling on the flanks of the volcano giving rise to pyroclastic flows, capable of incinerating anything as they pass.

Q: Why do local people call Mount Etna "Mamma Etna”?

Aitna (Etna) is the reason why people consider Etna to be a "mountain-mother" and not a "volcano-destroyer." "The mountain is good, just as Agata, patron saint of the city of Catania, good (from the Greek Agathòs, which means Good)." This explains the reason why the local people consider the Volcano a woman, the Mother Etna: a mother will always protect her children. “A Muntagna” (the mountain) is, therefore, female: its impetuousness and elegance make Catania and its surroundings unique.

Q: What are the Sicilian legends surrounding Mount Etna?

Legend of Etna of the beautiful Nymph:

Daughter of Uranus and Gea (personification of Heaven and Earth), Nymph Etna was the protagonist of several episodes. From the loving union with the god of fire Hephaestus, the legend tells that Nymph Etna completed the pregnancy of the twins hiding under the Volcano. The future unborn children will see the light twice: the first when Etna gives birth, the second when they come out of the belly of the mountain.

Legend of Hephaestus:

Also known as Vulcan in Roman mythology, Hephaestus (in ancient Greek Ἥφαιστος) was an important god of Greek mythology. According to tradition, Hephaestus is the god of fire, of engineering, but also of arts such as sculpture and metallurgy.

According to legend, Hephaestus was conceived by Hera, his mother, because she intended to take revenge on Zeus, her husband since he regularly cheated on her with other lovers. But as soon as he saw Hephaestus, his son, he found him so ugly that he hurled him from Olympus. Hephaestus is represented as an ugly man, large and stocky, quite the opposite of other gods. But he was extraordinarily strong and very good in the art of working metals and handling fire; no one could match it, so he is often portrayed with a hammer and anvil and near the fire.

According to legend, the forge of Hephaestus was on the slopes of Etna, which is why the volcano rumbled and threw lapilli. Hephaestus is represented with an anvil, hammer, pincers, and sometimes with an ax in part. Hephaestus is a character of the Iliad, raised by the Nereids after his mother Hera had repudiated him. Hephaestus took revenge on his mother by building a golden throne, magical so that once the goddess sat on it, they would remain imprisoned. Hephaestus agreed to free her only if her mother had recognized her as God. He married Aphrodite who was not in love with him and secretly betrayed him with Ares.

Legend of Colapesce:

Colapesce gained his nickname from his skills as a swimmer who could dive deep into the sea. The son of a fisherman, when the 13th century Emperor Frederick II heard of Colapesce’s skills, he had to meet the young man.

Frederick II challenged Colapesce by throwing a goblet, his crown, and eventually a ring into the choppy waters near the Straight of Messina. Colapesce retrieved each one; however, during his dives, Colapesce discovered that Sicily was held up by three columns–one in good condition, a second with cracks in it, and a third (the one under Messina, Catania, and Mount Etna) crumbling. Fearing that Sicily would collapse and fall into the sea if the third column wasn’t reinforced, Colapesce told Frederick that he would remain underwater to support the island himself. To this day, our hero Colapesce is still deep under the sea, holding Sicily up with his strength, and when he moves to adjust himself, that is why we feel the earth move under our feet!

Q: We know that many wineries have planted vineyards on the slopes of Mount Etna. Can you tell us more about it? What are the indigenous varieties grown?

Etna is the first D.O.C. established in Sicily. (The Controlled Designation of Origin, known by the acronym DOC, is a certification applied to Italian wines that, under the law, have distinctive features of superior quality, determined by the grape varietal and the production area as well as the techniques for processing and aging. Each D.O.C. is regulated in terms of areas, production methods, and sensory characteristics by a production specification.)

The Etna area has more than 40 different varieties of wine vines, including the following:

Nerello Mascalese: A black grape variety historically prevalent on Etna, takes its name from the territory of Mascali where it was selected a couple of centuries ago. It is the basis of red Etna DOC, in which at least 80% of Nerello Mascalese grapes must be present. Like the other Etna grape varieties, Nerello Mascalese is late-ripening, so it is harvested around the second decade of October. It produces wines with different nuances depending on the slope, the altitude in which it is cultivated and the farming system, generally united by a large structure and an elegance of perfumes destined to evolve further with aging.

Nerello Cappuccio: Nerello Cappuccio, or Mantellato, is another red grape variety widespread on the volcano which, together with Nerello Mascalese but in much lower percentages, represents a large part of the ampelographic panorama of the Etna vineyards. Its name derives from the characteristic bearing of the plant. It is present in red Etna DOC for a quota that cannot exceed 20%. To the wine, it gives a greater chromatic intensity thus making up for the low coloring capacity of Nerello Mascalese.

Carricante: It is a white grape variety that is found exclusively on Etna and its name refers to the great productivity of the plant, meaning in fact for carricante "plant full of fruits". It is particularly widespread on the east side of the volcano and is the basis of white Etna DOC.

Cataratto: Catarratto is the most common white grape variety in Sicily. It presents different clonal varieties different in color and shape of the bunches and is often used in blends with other vines, as in the case of Etna Bianco DOC, to which it gives structure, balance and its typical fruity aromas.

Q: What is it like to summit Mount Etna?

Climbing to the summit of Etna is a unique thrill for trekking lovers.

You reach the 2900m first with the Unimog 4x4 vehicles and then accompanied by a volcanological guide for the last 3330m of altitude. The view is spectacular.

However, this type of excursion is only recommended for those who practice sport and have no physical problems, especially respiratory, since the gases emitted from the crater can be aggravating.

Obviously reaching the summit depends on whether there is volcanic activity or not. It happens that for security reasons the summit is forbidden.

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